Confronting Russia’s Role in Transnational White Supremacist Extremism

A member of the neo-Nazi terror network the Base told a federal prosecutor in December that he believed the group’s leader, known then as Norman Spear, was a Russian spy. One month later, the Guardian revealed Spear’s true name to be Rinaldo Nazzaro and presented evidence that Nazzaro lives in Russia. BBC subsequently reported that Nazzaro was listed as a guest at a 2019 Russian government security exhibition which “focused on the demonstration of the results of state policy and achievements.”

Though Nazzaro’s relationship with the Russian government remains uncertain, these reports point to a broader trend: a mutual affection between Western white supremacists and the Russian government. It also highlights the reality that the distinction between foreign terrorism and so-called domestic terrorism is increasingly irrelevant. Dating back to 2004, David Duke characterized Russia as the “key to white survival,” and American white supremacist Richard Spencer recently identified Russia as the “sole white power in the world.” Both Jared Taylor—founder of the white supremacist outlet American Renaissance—and Matthew Heimbach—a Unite the Right organizer and leader of the now-defunct Traditionalist Workers Party—have met in person with ultranationalist Russian political leaders in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

For its part, the Russian government has exploited this interest. It has both turned a blind eye to far-right paramilitarism within its own borders and actively cultivated neo-Nazism in the West. These decisions align with its broader project to sow discord in Western democracies and influence transcontinental relations, despite its relatively weak military and economy. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for right-wing violence in the West constitutes an element in his broader destabilization campaign.

In the United States especially, white supremacist terrorists act upon an ideology that is deeply rooted in the country’s history of racist violence. The United States and its Western allies, therefore, must confront the issue of white supremacist terrorism at home and work towards a long overdue recalibration of counterterrorism priorities. But while the United States and its partners must confront this problem at home, they must also remember that hostile foreign powers have exploited homegrown racism for decades. Moreover, as Western counterterrorism efforts against white supremacist violence continue to ramp up (U.S. authorities, for example, have arrested seven members of the Base and a leader of the Unite the Right rally in recent weeks), extremists and aspiring terrorists may seek refuge in a more permissive environment, exacerbating the problem of Russian support.

To degrade existing links between Western extremists and Russian actors, and prevent the further formation of these connections, the United States and its partners must bolster their diplomatic capacity to confront this threat on a global scale. Here, we assess the current nexus between Western right-wing extremists and Russian actors at the state and non-state level. To be clear, we do not have a complete picture of these connections. Further work—from investigative reporting to intelligence sharing—is necessary to discern the scale of links between Western extremists and Russian actors. The counterterrorism community, however, must proactively work to understand this threat to prevent its further growth.

A Culture of Permissiveness

In 2014, the ultranationalist political organization Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) began training volunteers to fight alongside its paramilitary wing in eastern Ukraine, but the group has since expanded its operations to include global ambitions. According to the group’s spokesperson, RIM seeks to “continue to establish contacts with right-wing, traditionalist and conservative organizations around the world” in order “to share the experience of political [and] information warfare and joint squad tactics training.” Most prominently, RIM has worked alongside the Russian political party Rodina (also known as the Motherland-National Patriotic Union) to convene the World National-Conservative Movement (WNCM), a conference organized against the principles of “liberalism, multiculturalism and tolerance.”

WNCM’s organizers, however, sought to move beyond ideological exchanges and establish “joint camps for military and athletic instruction.” Now, through its paramilitary arm Imperial Legion, RIM carries out weeklong military-style training sessions known as Partisan. Led by a former member of the Russian armed forces, this program teaches ‘cadets’ to operate firearms and move in tactical formation.

In recent years, RIM’s terrorist training has proven deadly. Months before bombing a refugee center in Gothenburg, Sweden, the two perpetrators attended RIM’s Partisan training camp. According to the prosecutor handling the case, attendance at the “paramilitary camp in St. Petersburg was a key step in [the bombers’] radicalization” and it “may be the place where they learned to manufacture the bombs that they used in Gothenburg.” Both men had a history with the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), though it appears that each had moved on from the organization.

Despite the fact that these Swedish terrorists split with NRM prior to their attack, the group has maintained its own troubling relationship with RIM. In 2015, a RIM leader traveled to Sweden to speak at a NRM-hosted event called “Nordic Days,” and RIM has reportedly provided very modest financial support to its Nordic allies. Notably, NRM operates a Russian-language page with more than 2,000 members on the social media platform VK, according to the investigative journalism outlet Hate Speech International.

The November 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States lists the Nordic Resistance Movement as a “prominent transnational, self-described nationalist-socialist organization with anti-Western views,” that poses a threat, particularly to Europe, because of its propensity to use violence and its intent to destabilize societies. The relationship between the Nordic Resistance Movement and RIM reflects the transnational nature of right-wing extremism and acts as a reminder of how cross-border relationships can enhance the threat of terrorism. As political scientists Michael Horowitz and Philip Potter contend, cooperation and alliances between terrorist organizations increase group capacity.

What, then, is the connection between RIM’s transnational activities and Putin’s desire to undermine Western democracy? According to Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, Russian authorities knowingly tolerate RIM’s paramilitary camps. The Kremlin does not directly support RIM, but it does nothing to combat the group’s violent activities, despite knowledge of their operations. As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter characterized the situation, RIM’s paramilitary arm “operates freely” in Russia. The lack of counterterrorism pressure from domestic forces in Russia allows the organization to form alliances with extremists across Europe and the United States, enhancing the overall threat of right-wing extremism.

Russian strategy plays into its tolerance for RIM in two different ways. First, the Kremlin has an incentive to turn a blind eye to the group because of RIM’s role in helping to recruit Russians to fight in eastern Ukraine (it’s worth noting, however, that the conflict has also attracted white supremacist foreign fighters to fight with Ukrainians against Russia). Second, and more importantly for Western security services, the decision to allow RIM to act with impunity aligns with Putin’s zero-sum worldview in which liberal democracy in the West threatens his authoritarian hold in Russia. By allowing violent, globally minded paramilitarism to take hold within Russia’s borders, the Kremlin facilitates the growth of right-wing extremism in Europe and the United States that exacerbates threats to the stability of democratic governments.

Direct Tactical and Ideological Support

 Although the Kremlin’s support for RIM only amounts to tacit approval, Russian intelligence officials have directly interacted with other far-right groups such as the Hungarian National Front. A neo-Nazi paramilitary organization, the Hungarian National Front began to exhibit affinity for the Kremlin in 2012, when its leader István Györkös launched a website that promoted a pro-Putin message. According to a joint report from two Hungarian research institutes, the site “has clearly and unequivocally become a tool in the hands of Russian government propaganda.” The connection between the Hungarian National Front and Russia, however, goes further than just messaging efforts. Hungarian security services have testified to the country’s parliament that the neo-Nazi organization regularly took part in paramilitary training exercises with Russian military intelligence officials operating in Hungary under the guise of diplomatic cover. This direct support for far-right extremism, according to Andras Racz of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, fits into Russia’s broader effort to bolster “fringe groups in an effort to destabilize or simply disorient the European Union.”

Confronting State Sponsorship and Eliminating Safe Havens

Given this understanding of Russia’s complicity in this growing threat, how might Western officials address the Kremlin’s actions (and inaction) with regards to right-wing violence? First, the United States and its partners must lead by example. The West will have no credibility in condemning Russia’s soft stance on right-wing extremism if it cannot demonstrate a willingness to act seriously and combat the threat itself. In a time when elected officials hire unabashed extremists as senior advisors, parrot extremist talking points, laud the merits of white nationalism, and cover up their meetings with far-right extremists, the West has a long way to go in building its own legitimacy to call out other States. This necessary step includes adopting long-overdue policy measures to combat the threat of right-wing terrorism.

In the United States, lawmakers should adopt policies that boost resources for domestic terrorism prevention and aim to reduce the lethality of terrorist attacks. For example, Joshua Geltzer has suggested that the National Counterterrorism Center should be empowered to provide “analysis of the nature and direction of the white supremacist threat as a whole,” rather than trying to distinguish between the international and domestic aspects of a transnational threat. Lawmakers must also embrace interventions that precede the threshold for legal investigation. In recent congressional testimony, terrorism experts advocated for expanded funding for community partners such as non-law enforcement resources inside schools. Moreover, the Department of Defense should improve screening efforts to ensure white supremacists cannot infiltrate the military, as was stipulated in the House’s version of the most recent National Defense Authorization Act before an alteration in the Senate removed this provision. Congress could also improve data-collection efforts by passing the NO HATE Act, the Domestic and International Terrorism DATA Act, and the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would appropriate resources to help the national security community better understand the threat of white supremacist terrorism.

With regards to reducing lethality, scholars and policy experts agree: ease of access to firearms in the United States exacerbates the threat of terrorism. In addition to common-sense background checks, Congress should pass red-flag laws on a national level and also adopt the Disarm Hate Act, which would prohibit individuals who have been convicted of misdemeanor-level hate crimes from buying or possessing guns.

It is also critical to note that white supremacist extremism is not a threat conjured up by a far-off Russian boogeyman, but rather is America’s original sin. In fact, it has often been white supremacist extremists within the United States who have exported their ideology and violence across the globe. Recognizing this reality and addressing this challenge at home are necessary preconditions to confront the role that state actors play in this threat across the globe.

How then, should the United States and its partners work to degrade any relationships between far-right extremists and malign state actors? Terrorism experts suggest that the removal of a leader can help degrade international alliances. Doing so may also undermine transnational links. The United States and its partners should apply this lesson in a diplomatic, rather than lethal, approach to the threat of transnational white supremacist violence. In this case, a unified effort to encourage greater cooperation on extradition laws may be one way to target group leadership. Lars Agerbak was the leader of the far-right Danish organization National Front and once received paramilitary training in Russia. Though convicted of weapons-related charges in his native Denmark, he has since fled to Russia. Given that both parties are signatories to the 1957 European Convention on Extradition, the European Union might push to have Agerbak returned to Denmark. Doing so may undermine the international alliances established between Danish and Russian extremists, eroding the overall potency of transnational right-wing extremism. Moreover, if it is true that Rinaldo Nazzaro currently resides in Russia, the United States possesses legal options, including past precedent, to push for extradition or criminal accountability if U.S. authorities can bring a charge against Nazzaro.

In addition to a focus on extradition, American and European officials should work together to implement travel bans or other forms of targeted sanctions. Specifically, these sorts of diplomatic penalties could target leaders within RIM or Rodina to prevent them from traveling to the West to cultivate alliances and exchange ideas. Such provisions could have prevented a RIM representative from traveling to the United States to meet with Matthew Heimbach in 2017 and could undermine future collaboration between RIM and the Nordic Resistance Movement. Similar sanctions might also target intelligence officials determined to have directly trained or supported paramilitary organizations in Europe or the United States. Tools to fight state-sponsorship measures may not persuade Russia to altogether abandon their sponsorship of these groups, but they could convince the Kremlin to avoid further escalation of these activities. Though a relatively modest objective, it could help to stymie a growing threat.

In the United States, these objectives will require staffing and procedural changes that provide the necessary tools to confront the threat of white supremacist violence on a global scale. In particular, the State Department might consider the creation of a Special Envoy position to help elevate the priority of this issue. Fighting this threat, however, will require a whole of government effort, including building a workforce that understands this movement and its deep history.

Conclusion

From Heimbach to Nazzaro to an unnamed white supremacist leader and New Zealand soldier who planned to travel to Russia prior to his December 2019 arrest, the relationship between white extremists and the Russian state demands further attention. Moscow has already begun to exploit this fascination by intentionally stoking neo-Nazi sentiment and permitting extremist actors to use Russia as a transnational paramilitary training ground. The United States and its partners must act now to confront the globally linked white supremacist extremist movement in anticipation of an increasingly diffuse threat in the coming years.

Our recommendations are not limited to confronting Russia’s role in this threat and indeed could serve as a foundation for a broader diplomatic effort. As previously discussed, Ukraine’s Azov Battalion has actively recruited foreign fighters from Atomwaffen Division and the Rise Above Movement. Our partners should not be absolved of responsibility, and indeed may prove more receptive to these types of diplomatic efforts.

The long-overdue campaign against white supremacist terrorism appears to have prevented a potentially horrific attack in Richmond, Va. This near-tragedy underscores the importance of domestic counterterrorism efforts, but this fight must occur within a broader effort to dismantle the global white supremacist terrorist movement. As Western extremists feel increasingly vulnerable to law enforcement activity, they may flock to refuges in which they will not face counterterrorism pressure. To mitigate the risk posed by such an evolution, the United States and its partners must challenge state actors that aggravate the threat of transnational white supremacist extremism.

Image: Supporters of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement chant slogans during a demonstration at the Kungsholmstorg square in Stockholm, Sweden on August 25, 2018. Photo by FREDRIK PERSSON/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault

Associate Professor of Teaching in the Security Studies Program in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, Author of How the Gloves Came Off: Lawyers, Policy Makers, and Norms in the Debate on Torture.

Joseph Stabile

Master's candidate at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he studies terrorism and white supremacist extremism